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Punishment is defined as the deliberate infliction of suffering on a supposed or actual offender for an offense such as a moral or legal transgression. It is imposed primarily to change human behavior. It is a fact that people behave differently depending on the consequences of their actions.
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We are all familiar with punishment. As a child, some people may have experienced different forms of punishment. It may involve physical pain or deprivation of certain benefits that a person has been accustomed to. The society also has its method of punishing those which transgress its laws. If the crime is not a capital one, the punishment usually given is either community service or fine or the imposition of imprisonment the length of which depends on the gravity of the crime committed. If however it is a capital crime such as murder in the first degree the state shall impose capital punishment to those who violate its laws.
The origin of capital punishment dates back to the time before Christ. It was first established in Eighteenth Century B.C. in the Code of King Hammurabi. During this time, the death penalty was imposed for violation of 25 different crimes. In the Fourteenth Century B.C., the death penalty was also made part of the Draconian Code of Athens. In the Fifth Century B.C., it was also adopted as a form of punishment by the Romans and incorporated in their laws.
In Britain, capital punishment was first imposed in the Tenth Century A.D. During this time, several methods of execution were adopted. These were hanging, boiling, burning at the stake, beheading, drawing and quartering. During the 19th Century, however, death penalty reforms have been made and as a result crimes punishable by death penalty have been reduced in Britain. (“History of Death Penalty”)
Today, the world has seen a gradual decline in the number of countries that impose capital punishment. According to New York Times, almost two-thirds of the world’s countries, including virtually all of Europe, have abolished the death penalty. The question now is should the United States which merely adopted the capital punishment from Britain continue to impose capital punishment? Considering that its main influence for imposing capital punishment has slowly changed their approach to crime and punishment should the United States follow?
Two landmark cases reflect the existing debate on the issue of capital punishment in the United States. These cases were Furman v. Georgia and Gregg v. Georgia.
The Supreme Court in the case of Furman v Georgia (408 US 238) declared that the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment. The said conclusion was arrived at by the Supreme Court because of their findings on the manner capital punishment was administered. According to them, the death sentence was disproportionately imposed and carried out on the poor, the Negro and the members of the unpopular groups. Considering that life imprisonment was an effective deterrent to crime and that capital punishment was an excessive punishment, it concluded that:
“…then existing state laws were applied in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner and, thus, violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantees of equal protection of the laws and due process”(Death Penalty: Questions and Answers 1)
As a result of the decision, the state of Georgia reformed its laws to eliminate the discrimination and arbitrariness in the implementation of capital punishment. In the 1973 case of Gregg v. Georgia (428 US 153) the Supreme Court reversed itself and ruled that the punishment of death penalty does not violate the constitution. According to the Supreme Court, the constitution itself does not prohibit capital punishment. The Eight Amendment to the United States Constitution which states that “No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty and property without due process of law” does not prohibit death penalty but in fact, authorizes it provided that the requirement of due process of law has been complied with.
In addition, the Supreme Court said that the argument proposed in the case of Furman v. Georgia that over time the standards of decency of the public had evolved such that the capital punishment can no longer be tolerated is no longer valid. According to the Supreme Court, the events that transpired in the landmark case of Furman v. Georgia indicate that the argument is fallacious. It bears stressing that new death penalty laws have been passed in more than 35 states after Furman v. Georgia which proves that death penalty has not been rejected by the elected representatives of the people.
In order to understand the issues behind the imposition of capital punishment, one needs to understand the arguments presented by those who are in favor of capital punishment and those who are against it. According to the Abolitionists or those who are against capital punishment, it does not deter crimes. They cite studies showing that there is no empirical evidence that will establish a causal relationship between capital punishment and the commission or noncommission of crime. Research reveals that in twenty-seven states where at least one execution occurred during the sample period, Executions deter murder in only six states. On the other hand, in some states, capital punishment even increased murder in thirteen states, more than twice as many as experience deterrence. In eight states, capital punishment has no effect on the murder rate. That is, executions have a deterrent effect in only twenty-two percent of states. In contrast, executions induce additional murders in forty-eight percent of states. In seventy-eight percent of states, executions do not deter murder.
It does not always follow that crime are premeditated or planned as it is likewise possible for a crime to be committed either in a state of anger or passion. If a crime is premeditated then the mindset of the criminal is to think of ways to elude arrest and conviction not the fear of punishment. In these cases, capital punishment will not deter crime
For the Abolitionists, capital punishment is murder. It is an act of violence. By considering that capital punishment is the only solution to criminality, the US government teaches that the solution to violence is also violence. In effect, the state is legitimizing violence by making it part of our criminal justice system. Abolitionists, thus, propose other less violent means of incapacitating the offender such as by imposing lengthy prison sentences.
Capital punishment is discriminatory since race and socioeconomic factors play important roles in its implementation. Abolitionists argue that, at present, it is virtually impossible to implement capital punishment fairly. According to Christina Swans “A 2000 study by the U.S. Department of Justice reveals that between 1995 and 2000, 72 percent of the cases that the attorney general approved for death-penalty prosecution involved defendants of color. During that time, statistics show that there were relatively equal numbers of black and white homicide perpetrators.”
The death penalty is irreversible and it permanently deprives the offender of the due process of law. When we execute people, we are depriving them of the opportunity for their innocence to be proved by the latest technology. There is always the possibility that innocent people may be put to death because once the convicted person is executed he can no longer be benefited by new evidence that may, later on, be discovered or by the retraction of the testimony of a witness who was instrumental in his conviction.
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